In My Brother's House
James Bruce May
‘Lou will probably wake up at some point,’ Em says, returning the kettle to its base, flicking its switch, eyeing me casually. ‘If she cries, she’s either knocked her blanket out of her cot and wants it back, or she’s had a dream or whatever. I gave her some Calpol before she went to bed so her teeth shouldn’t bother her.’
Flowing across her kitchen from counter to cupboard like a figure skater might twirl over the frozen lakes of her hometown, she takes out a mug and hands it to me. ‘She’ll usually drift off again after a few mins so you can leave her for a bit, unless she really begins to wail, and well, if that happens, just give her a nice cuddle. Favourite uncle and all that.’
‘Only uncle you mean.’
‘Abi will sleep through unless Lou wakes her, but she’ll only need guiding to the loo and then straight back to bed. She’ll try it on to stay up; I’m sure she gets that from your side of the family.’ Smirking, Em breezes into the hall. She slings on a tight-fitting jacket, swoops up her bag and snatches her keys from the Owl Be Okay hook. ‘Right, gotta go, people to see, places to be.’ She stands still for a second, perhaps about to say something.
‘You look great,’ I tell her.
‘I know it’s been a while since you’ve done all this, but you’ll be fine. They’re good girls. I’ve got my mobile. Bell me if you have any trouble.’ Opening the door onto the rainy street she hurries to the car, gets inside, winds down the window, starts the engine and does her seat belt up simultaneously.
‘What about nappies and stuff?’ Icy darts of rain flash before the headlamps, water rolls over the windscreen as she reverses down the drive. Em calls through the window, answer already prepared; the nappy bag is in the bathroom – she’s sure I’ll figure it out, but aren’t I too old for nappies? Accelerating down the road she’s gone, leaving the street silent, hushed by the slanting rain.
Behind me the kettle grumbles to the boil. Closing the door on the night I peer upstairs, mug in hand. The steps are being used as extra shelves for folded laundry. One is strewn with tiny shoes. All is still on the toy-laden landing above.
The fridge yields a beer, the cupboard swaps the mug for a glass. The drawer offers a bottle opener, a broken crown bottle-top tumbles onto a jagged stack of bills. The water in the kettle quietens. On top of the dishwasher sits the Babylink. A roll of my thumb brings the silence of upstairs into the kitchen, the amplified buzz of nothing almost drowning out the sound of Lou’s tiny breaths.
I take my brother’s beer into his front room, take a seat between a fluffy cow and a grinning giraffe on his ink-splattered sofa, reach for his remote. The television flicks on beneath the framed photographs of Jez and Em together, of Abi smiling, holding Lou in her lap, the two girls’ long white dresses crumpling into one, and another of the granddad they never got to meet. They’ll recognise him in both me and Jez though. Same everything, like clones. Hazel hair curling in ringlets, eyes the blue of a vein, jaw straight as a Dutch horizon. Cloned; smouldering temper, dry humour, stubborn, competitive, seductive. No wonder their mother used to get us mixed up. Mind you, even our own mother can’t tell us apart some days. Clones, she calls us, smiling a long smile.
Broken sentences link loosely to form a confused cross section of the night’s programmes as I descend through the channels. There’s nothing on but there might as well be something on, and by the time I settle on the History Channel, the photos somehow slip from view.
Between sips of beer I watch as the Nazis are pushed back from the Normandy coast, as the melancholy churning of caterpillar tracks write hard-fought claim over the dusty roads of Dieppe, as relieved looking villagers cling to frightened babies whilst green trucks transport sombre looking, young looking men past the camera towards the front.
In the ad break I look around the room at the piles of children’s books, of Observer Music Monthly, of DVDs, at the windowsill and its two retro-looking lamps, mugs left empty on Beatles’ album cover coasters. And before World War Two resumes, and as I reach for my glass of beer, I take in the sparseness of the coffee table. There was a time when Jez’s coffee table would‘ve had tobacco scattered all over it, torn up Rizla packs protruding from sixties-style ashtrays. Not anymore. Nowadays Jez doesn’t have time to smoke. Always working, often through the night, bringing the money in for a steady supply of baby lotion and Barbie dolls, fish fingers and God knows what else. I still fly the flag occasionally, especially at festivals, but then I’m a free agent. Maybe Jez and Em will bring the girls to Glasto one year. It’d be just like old times. Well, maybe. Maybe not.
Thoughts of smoke make me thirsty, and I find myself pouring another beer, breathing quietly as the foam decreases, listening to the eerie static cast out by the Babylink, its long slow hiss like a serpent’s. I think of that story where the prince slays his dog after believing it had eaten his son, when really it had been protecting the child from a terrible snake. Why doesn’t Jez have a dog? I think I would have. The thought of two eye-slits pondering my offspring, only a serpentine swish away from their prey... And though the static doesn’t change in tone, it sounds sinister now, like I’m listening to the presence of something malevolent that’s in the room with my niece.
The stairs creak as I pick my way up to Lou’s room. She’s probably fine but I just want to see and make sure. There’s a picture of a sunflower on each of the girls’ doors, their names are cut in pink card, stuck across the stamen. Putting my ear to Abi’s door I wait for a second. Not a sound. At six, she’s probably used to the occasional monster under the bed, knows how to spot them. I’ll hear about it if she sees one. Lou though, she’s still submerged in a primeval baby world, and though I hear nothing at her door either, a snake could be cot death: for all I know it could be.
I ease the door open. The dark of the room widens my eyes. A slant of light follows me in and I can make out Lou’s cot, but the shape of Lou herself is lost in the softness of her blankets and teddies-on-ceremony. If I want to see her, I’ll have to stand over the cot. I don’t want to wake her though; I should let her sleep. But what if it is cot death? I should check she’s alive at least. I take tentative steps until I see her lying on her back.
Shadows of the cot’s bars fall over her body. Lou’s face is a tiny circle, the darkening of her eyebrows are pulled into a frown whilst her unconscious grips her and whispers ‘Sleep, Grow, Live.’ Nothing is amiss.
With my eyes still on her I begin to step back. As I reach the door she twitches her head then touches her mouth, letting out a liquid murmur as her fingers brush her cheek. I close the door and imagine the darkness once again filling the room. For a moment I listen, ear close to the sunflower. There a murmuring, there again a little louder. She’ll usually drift off, Em had said. All perfectly normal. I should go and finish my beer so my body can process the alcohol in time for my drive home.
Downstairs, the hissing of the Babylink plunges at each of Lou’s gurgles, then climbs in intensity until she makes another noise; again the plunge, the quietness of the kitchen, the groan and tick of the fridge, the hiss swelling; a sound from Lou, the plunge, the quietness once more. A minute passes and all I do is stand by the dishwasher listening to the advance of sleep around my niece, until at last the hiss steadies, a long, unbroken sigh exhaling into the kitchen about me.
I take a swig of beer and go to find my cigarettes. Who knew babysitting could make you so edgy? Opening the back door out onto the patio, I watch the rain splash into puddles and vanish into grass. I start to smoke, looking out into the night. The streetlight doesn’t touch this side of the house but the garden’s gloom glistens in the glow from the kitchen window. Listening to the sound of warfare coming from the front room, the hiss from the Babylink, the faint crackle of my cigarette, the restless rain tapping on a dustbin by the door, I stand here and smoke, thinking nothing. Well, almost nothing.
What time is it? Must be around nine. And when will Em get home? She hadn’t said, she hadn’t said much. She’d been in a hurry to leave, like she didn’t have time to talk. I’d hoped we’d get to hang out, just for a while. Maybe we will later. Maybe later we’ll have a drink, like old times. Mind you, I have to drive. Mind you, I could always stay. God knows when Jez will get back, but it would be good to see him. It’s been ages. It’s always ages. Ages since Em and I drank together, and ages since we sat up all night talking. Ages since anything. Ages since they’ve asked me round here, definitely.
Maybe it’s better if I go as soon as Em gets back. I shouldn’t be thinking about hanging around. As soon as she’s home, I’ll go. I’ll go as soon as she gets home.
I flick my cigarette out into the garden when a whimpering grows in the kitchen behind me. I roll my eyes and once again close out the night, brushing the cold from my forearms, leaning against the door to listen. Sobs seep through the speaker on the dishwasher. They grow in volume and pitch, repetitive like the approach of a sad siren. Lou’s cries come with each breath, uninterrupted, and in that pattern I wonder; it’s so rhythmical, maybe she’s still asleep? Just having a bad dream? And then there’s a momentary pause.
There’s a clicking as Lou swallows and smacks her lips together. For a second the hiss of silence begins to close in around her, but it’s thrown back by a long, loud wail, a noise which is unmistakably unhappy. Just leave her for a few minutes, Em had said, but the crying is in full flow, full of a yearning I know I can’t resist.
How can anyone leave a child like this? How can Em say leave her to it so coolly? What if Abi wakes up? Could I deal with both girls at the same time? And what if Lou gets hysterical; can she do herself damage that way?
First I go to the dishwasher and roll down the volume of the Babylink. Lou’s crying plummets from the air and is transported to the top of the stairs where it sounds distant, removed. The difference in volume is astonishing and for a moment I take stock. What do I say to her once I’ve picked her up? Will she even recognise me, won’t I scare her more? I picture Jez standing here going through this. No wonder he works nights.
I make my way upstairs and hover on the landing listening. Lou’s crying really is quieter, even here outside her door. Maybe the walkie-talkie was over-exaggerating things. Maybe I could just leave her. But she’s still crying and I don’t want Abi to wake and well, I’m here now.
As soon as the door opens, Lou starts to cry harder. She sees me and reaches her arms out to me. I go across and stoop over her cot, saying ‘There there, it’s okay, it’s alright, shh shh.’ I slide my fingers under her arms and grip her shoulders with my thumbs, lifting her clear from her bed to hold her against my chest. ‘There there, it’s okay, don’t cry, there there.’ She sobs into my T-shirt, wriggling inside this half jumper, half sleeping bag thing she’s wearing. I jostle her about a bit and bend to grab her blanket, which she’s somehow wedged between the cot’s bars. ‘I expect we’ll be needing this, won’t we,’ I tell her, and she wails again reaching towards it, kicking with urgency. ‘You’re pretty strong, aren’t you? Now what’s the matter? What’s going on up here?’ She starts to cry rhythmically again so I steer us towards the door and carry her past Abi’s room and down the stairs.
‘Hey, it’s okay, shh you, everything is fine, see? Uncle Joe is here. We’re going downstairs to have a cuddle. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, hmm? Of course you would. Did you think it was morning? Ah but it’s not morning yet. Night-time is funny sometimes. Goes on and on and on. Shh though darling. We’ll be okay, you’ll see.’
I pace to and fro in the kitchen giving Lou little bounces, hoping the motion will settle her. She doesn’t settle exactly, but her crying eases off, so I keep talking.
‘There there, shh you, it’s okay. Is this your blanket? Why not give it a hug?’ I try to manoeuvre the blanket around her, and I kiss the soft, short hair on her head. She feels, and even smells, so warm. She’s like a hot water bottle, filled with sweet, soapy sweat. ‘You’re beautiful, aren’t you? Yes you are.’ I’m talking absolute bullshit to her. At least she won’t remember.
Her sobbing starts to peter out, dwindling between short intakes of breath. Maybe I should try and lay her back down straight away? ‘Do you want to go back to sleep? Would that be nice? Hmm?’ I lean her back in my arms, cupping her head in my hand so we can see each other better. She’s stopped crying, but there’re streaks of dampness on her pink cheeks. She looks at me curiously, as if she’s only just noticed I’m not her father. Her expression makes me uneasy. It’s sort of expectant. I feel I should introduce myself or something.
‘Hello Lou. Are you feeling better? You remember your uncle Joe, don’t you?’
She blinks her dark blue eyes then pulls her blanket into her mouth for a suck. I lift her up to sniff near her tummy, like mothers do with babies on TV, but she doesn’t smell at all of piss or shit. I should try and get her off to sleep again. ‘Come on little Lou, let’s get you back to bed.’
As I carry her up the stairs she starts crying again, and by the time I’m holding her over her cot she’s beginning to wail, as if going back into bed would mean the end of the world.
‘It’s okay, Lou. Let’s go back downstairs for another cuddle. We don’t want to wake your big sister, now do we? There there darling, there there.’ She must think I’m a total pushover. I am a total pushover. How on earth can she know I’m a pushover?
Lou stops her yelling almost as soon as she’s cradled in my arms again, but this time her sobbing doesn’t stop, not with pacing and bouncing nor with any amount of baby talk.
Over my shoulder I hear bombs falling. Perhaps The World at War isn’t helping matters? I sway us to the sofa in the front room and as I reach down for the remote Lou spots the television and stops crying. Straightening up, I turn with her tucked in my arms, her head against my chest, standing sideways to the TV, rocking back and forth, not saying a word.
By now the Allied bombers are delivering payload after payload directly onto Dresden. The aftermath of the firestorm is awful. Skeletal buildings lean amongst rubble and twisted metal like a scene from a nightmare, and there in the centre, a charred statue of an angel stands above the ruins, holding out pleading hands, unable to shed a single tear to express the infinite sadness of her loss.
As I think how fucked up must that have been, how terrifying for both sides, Lou watches contentedly, chewing on her blanket. She feels heavier in my arms now so I sit us down, back between the cow and giraffe. I try to organise the cushions a bit then swing my legs up, stretching out over the sofa. Lou, staring at the television, fits snugly on my chest. I rest my hand over the length of her back, stroking her gently.
‘What a mad world you’ve been brought into,’ I say to her. Reaching again for the remote, I turn the volume down a notch. This she doesn’t mind. She seems happy now, rising and falling as I breathe, my beautiful niece, safe from Hitler, safe from snakes, safe here with me in my brother’s house. Her eyes glaze a little and she looks drowsy. I follow her gaze to the TV and look again at the photos there. I look at dad. He must have gone through this with Jez and me, only a thousand times more often. It’s a shame he can’t do it all again with Lou, a shame she won’t feel his bristly, stubble-kiss, pull at his smoky, springy hair, hear his laughter, hear his stories. Just one night of this has knackered me out, only a few hours really. I’ve no idea how people do it every day.
I cock my head to look at Lou’s face and see she’s closed her eyes. How adorable she is, sleeping on my chest. I’ve never experienced anything like this, never felt this close to new life. Another round of ads comes on and I lie here on the sofa, trying not to think that long before Lou’s time, things were very different. I remember when I first met Em. She was young, up for adventure, fit. I didn’t take anything seriously back then. Too busy getting stoned. Which is how she came to meet my brother. Older and wiser, she said when we went up to his flat to score off him. I remember thinking, later on when she said she was going out with him, that it wouldn’t last. And then when she got pregnant with Abi, and they got this place together, well, that was that.
‘So that’s it Lou,’ I say to my sleeping niece, ‘but it’s okay, your mum and dad are good. We drifted apart a bit when your sister came along, but things are cool between us. And I’ll probably be around more now, to hang out with you.’
The History Channel must be playing the World at War back to back as another episode comes on. I lie here watching as my niece sleeps. It’s funny thinking about the things you try not to think about. Or things you used to think were better left unexplored. Things that at the time, you thought would never change, and so ought to be left behind, because what’s the point in dragging things out? But then, years later, somehow things become easier to approach. I guess you just need experience, then time does the rest. Like you can see why Europeans don’t fight each other anymore. Or how a father’s two sons can look alike, but from within each son’s head a different voice is speaking. And it’s ultimately this that counts, what’s inside the head, not what’s on the surface. From inside their heads, Jez and Em probably see this place as a palace, however cluttered up it gets and however much they’re gagging for a night out. I bet they don’t mind at all when it comes to staying in with the kids. Because this is it, this beautiful baby here asleep on my chest is the key to life. No wonder they hang their keys on the Owl Be Okay hook. And now I’m involved too, part of the family.
Holding Lou, I close my eyes.
The sound of a key in the door wakes me up.
About the author:
James Bruce May read Creative Writing at Greenwich University and Goldsmiths College in London, where he currently lives with his guitar. His work appears in HARK Magazine, The Treacle Well, Word Bohemia, The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Fat City Review, The Puffin Review, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, and elsewhere.